VANCOUVER, B.C. – When the wake-up call came for the Vancouver Canucks, Sami Salo answered.
The Vancouver defenceman scored off a rebound with 1:13 left in the third period to break a 3-3 tie as the Canucks defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 5-3 in the opening game of their NHL Western Conference semifinal.
It was a win that very nearly turned into an embarrassing defeat for Vancouver. The Canucks led 3-0 after 40 minutes, but the young Blackhawks mounted a furious comeback in the third period.
Dave Bolland tied the game at 14:31 after a pair of Patrick Kane goals, the second coming on a power play.
With the game seemingly heading to overtime, the Canucks broke out in a four-on-one rush. Speedy winger Mason Raymond sent a pass to big Steve Bernier, who streaked in on Nikolai Khabibulin.
The Chicago goaltender made a great stop on Bernier’s shot. The rebound went to Salo, who was trailing on the play. He drove the winning goal home to bring a deafening roar from the sellout crowd of 18,630 at GM Place.
“I had a lot of gas in the tank so I decided to join the rush,” said a grinning Salo. “It was a little risky but good things happen when you stop at the front of the net.”
Salo was one of the Canucks on the ice when Chicago tied the game.
“It was a wake-up call,” he said. “We let them carry the game. If you let that team carry the game, they will take it over. It’s a good thing we found a way to win.”
Bernier said the Canucks learned an important lesson about not giving a team a second chance.
“That was not something we wanted,” he said. “The important thing is not to think about what happened. It’s think about what you are going to do next to help your team win.”
The night was an emotional roller-coaster for the Blackhawks that ended in a crash.
“It’s tough,” said Kane, who finished the game a minus-3 and also took a four-minute high-sticking penalty. “We had a great third period.
“One mistake and it ends up in the back of your net.”
Ryan Johnson, into an empty net, Pavol Demitra, on a power play, Ryan Kesler and Henrik Sedin scored the other Canucks goals.
While Salo was the game’s hero, forward Kyle Wellwood might have been the best Canuck player.
Wellwood, the free-agent signing who was criticized and demoted to the minors after arriving at training camp out of shape, had two assists. The former Toronto Maple Leaf also two drew a pair of double minors for high sticking and a tripping penalty that led to Demitra’s first-period, power-play goal.
The pain of five stitches to close a cut an eye, and a chipped tooth, was easier to live with after the win.
“It’s definitely not fun to have these marks on your face, but in the playoffs it feels all right because you get on CBC and your family and friends get to see you more,” he laughed.
Coach Alain Vigneault called Wellwood’s new look an improvement.
“At least now he looks like a hockey player,” Vigneault joked. “I’m happy about that.”
Vigneault wasn’t smiling about his team almost squandering a victory.
“They (Chicago) work hard and they are a very strong team,” he said. “They don’t quit. It was a hard-fought game. They made it very difficult for us. At the end of the day we found a way to win the game and that’s what it’s all about.
“In our case there is definitely some room for improvement. We know that. We know we need to get better. We certainly will and we will start on that tomorrow.”
Vancouver, coming off a nine-day layoff after dispatching the St. Louis Blues in four games during the first round of the playoffs, showed some first-period rust. The Canucks looked tentative, coughed up the puck a couple of times, and couldn’t muster any shots on net during the first four-minute power play.
Vigneault credited goaltender Roberto Luongo with making a couple early saves to keep his team in the game.
“He permitted us to find our legs a little bit and find our hands, more than anything else,” he said.
Vigneault also wasn’t happy about a brutal blindside hit Chicago’s Ben Eager laid on Rick Rypien in the second period.
Eager was given a roughing penalty on the play but Vigneault hopes the league deals out a suspension.
Penalties were costly for Chicago. The Blackhawks were called for five consecutive penalties, including a double minor after Andrew Ladd bloodied Wellwood’s face with a high stick.
“We put ourselves behind an 8-ball,” said Eager. “But we showed some courage to come back and tie it up. It’s too bad how the game ended.”
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said his team can learn from the loss.
“It was a great comeback but a disappointing ending,” he said. “We’ll get a little confidence out of it but we should not be satisfied with what transpired.”
The second game in the best-of-seven series is Saturday (9 p.m. ET).
Notes: Kane was seven months old when Canuck centre Mats Sundin was selected first overall in the 1989 draft. …The Canucks and Blackhawks have met twice before in the playoffs. Chicago swept the 1995 Western Conference semifinal in four games (three in OT) while Vancouver won the 1982 Campbell Conference final 4-1. …The Canuck scratches were Rob Davison, Ossi Vaananen, Taylor Pyatt and Jannik Hansen. …No one on the Canucks has won a Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks’ Khabibulin (2004 Tampa) and Samuel Pahlsson (2007 Anaheim) both have championship rings.